Riding Styles

Mon 16th Mar 2015, 16:05

Ruby Walsh and Wayne Hutchinson part company with their mounts at Cheltenham
©Healy Racing Photos
BLOG 5 - Riding Styles. Leading dancer Emma O' Kane and WillFredd Theatre are preparing to present a dance show Jockey which will premiere at VISUAL, Carlow on May 15th 2015. Emma's been learning how to ride for the project as well as researching her grandfather Phillip De Burgh O' Brien, a bloodstock agent and racing journalist who died before she was born. Over the next few weeks Emma and WillFredd Theatre will bring you an exclusive blog on irishracing.com about Emma's family research, her riding lessons and the creation of Jockey.

So I'm back sitting in Helen O'Sullivan's kitchen. I look out the window into the cold January weather and I can see Copper Beech Stables where I have just come from a riding lesson. Cup of tea in hand I chat to Helen about my riding lessons and my search thus far for Phillip's articles. I'm a bit disheartened; although I found Phillip's work in Charlie O'Reilly's collection and I managed to find one of his articles in the RDS library, I have trawled through The RDS Proceedings and The Bloodstock Breeders Review from 1957 - 1963 and there's nothing. I need to find out more about him so I can build a picture of this horse - loving man. As of yet I don't have a have a full sense of who he was. However, I am struck by the thought that in getting to know the Irish horse I am getting to know my grandfather. Strange but true! There's no time for disheartenment; at lightening speed Helen is on the phone to her colleagues and racing friends. She is going to great lengths to help me out. I must remember to take a leaf from Helen's book; she has an incredible, selfless quality in helping others. I keep hearing the same name being mentioned in all the telephone conversations. Guy Williams. Guy doesn't know this but he's my last hope. Helen is sure that Guy will know something about Phillip, and if he doesn't then it's game over. Bolstered by Helen's upbeat energy I'm off to visit Guy, who, at a moments notice is happy to have me look through his racing archive. I'm meeting incredible people on this journey.

Guy's house is a trove of amazing racing memorabilia. I spend the afternoon in his library. Guy doesn't remember Phillip, but they both wrote for the Irish Horseman in the late 60's and early '70s. We strike gold, thankfully. Of the many articles I find is one entitled RIDING STYLES in the Irish Horseman in 1970, a big year for Lester Piggott who was famous for his "rap-a-tap-tap" whip style. Phillip writes "The present craze for riding so 'absurdly' short started some fifteen years ago and was initiated by the present champion, Lester Piggott." Phillip goes on to explain Lester's earlier years growing into a "tallish man'' as an apprentice jockey and the brilliance behind his unique riding style. "But, it took his genius to adjust his style to such a dreadfully cramped position and still manage to find a way of driving his mounts to keep them balanced with only knees and ankles to help him." I'm in agreement; I don't know how any jockey can ride in such a cramped position. I don't think that position is going to sit well with me but there's no turning back now.

It's a busy day, after leaving Guy's I'm buoyed up with hope for this project and I'm en route to Burgage Stud to chat with human and horse physio, Liz Kent. It's fascinating watching Liz treat a horse who is experiencing muscles spasm in his back. If I close my eyes she could be treating a dancer. The two worlds are getting closer.

It's June 2014 before Sophie and I meet Guy for a second time. On this occasion we are joined by Sarah Jane Sheils who is co-founder of Willfredd Theatre and designer: lighting, set and costume. With forensic-like precision we scour through what has to be Ireland's unofficial Racing Archive. It strikes us that whilst there is a huge amount of genealogy of horses recorded back as far as the Founding Stallions, there is no official archive. Even more surprising considering the racing industry receives funding from the Irish government.

My work schedule has allowed for a break in rehearsals so I've taken full advantage and I'm booked in for two weeks intensive lessons. I've upgraded to a new horse, called Molly. She's a bit feistier than Toffee, and for the most part it's going well. Having lessons back to back is great it means I can really work on technique and I'm seeing an improvement. The lower leg is not such an issue anymore. My posture is good but I can't help clinging on to the reins. In the last few lessons Molly and I aren't really getting on. She's being a bit bold and to be honest I don't blame her the tension in my hands is obviously affecting the bit in her mouth and she just wants me off her. And she's not shy in doing so! Before we jump she has already broken into a canter. I'm not used to this and I've totally lost control! She canters, jumps, two strides and then throws in a buck for good measure. There's a lot going through my mind as I find myself clinging to her neck with my inner thighs after being thrown off the saddle. I don't mind falling it's just the fact that I don't relish whacking into the fence, which is getting far too close for comfort. I didn't know I had it in me but with great calm, Titan strength from years of dancing and a bid not to go into rehearsals on Monday with broken ribs. I correct my balance and in one unbelievable "hoosh" I'm back on the saddle.

My balance saved me. Lorraine my teacher is amazed I'm not on the ground. In her words, "That was textbook recovery".

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